When Michael Lesy's thesis-turned-cult classic Wisconsin Death Trip was published in 1973, it was quite unlike anything anyone had ever seen before. It doesn't sound like much?just a collection of old photographs taken around Black River Falls, WI, between 1885 and 1899?coupled with news clippings from the local paper. But the photographs?of farmers, uncomfortable-looking families, peculiar animals, and funerals?lots of funerals?were haunting and strangely bleak. And the clippings detailed what seemed to be an unusually high incidence, for the time and place, of murder, suicide, religious zealotry, disease and madness?including repeated appearances by a coke-sniffing schoolteacher named Mary Sweeney with a penchant for smashing windows. The behavior of the town's residents during that stretch of time made James Dickey's Appalachian inbreds look like little more than playful scamps. It was almost as if someone had taken New York's notorious Five Points and dumped it unceremoniously in the Midwest.
Lesy's general conclusion, in fact, could be boiled down to this: Everyone in central Wisconsin during that 15-year period was insane.
I was obsessed with that book?having grown up in Wisconsin, it reinforced everything I'd always believed about my home state. I wasn't alone in my obsession, either. Long out of print, Wisconsin Death Trip is going for hundreds of dollars on the used-and-rare market.
Now someone finally decided to turn it into a movie. I'm relieved to report that he did a fine and true job of it. It's dark, it's grim and at turns very, very funny.
In a deceptively simple combination of photographs from the book, live-action sequences (in a stunning b/w that mimics the photos) and narration (actor Ian Holm reading accounts from the local paper), Wisconsin Death Trip stays true to its source?and in doing that, achieves the impossible.
"If you grow up in Wisconsin, and you have a particular kind of mindset," filmmaker James Marsh told me over the telephone from London, where he was finishing up his next film, "that book seems to be something that would give you a very interesting perspective on your own surroundings."
Wisconsin Death Trip is Marsh's first feature film, after directing several documentaries for the BBC. He's made films about the animal trials of medieval Europe, the murder of Marvin Gaye and the final meals ordered by death row inmates. A few years ago, HBO picked up his documentary about Elvis' eating habits, The Burger and the King. I suggested that moving from those subjects into Wisconsin Death Trip seemed like a logical progression.
"It very much was," he confirmed. "I encountered the book in New York eight years ago. The title is immediately very arresting. You start looking at the photographs, and they start looking back at you in a kind of particularly disturbing way. And then you start reading the text, and you're in this nightmarish and very relentless world of the past... I have certain interests, and they're largely quite twisted ones, so Wisconsin Death Trip was a way of looking at some things I'd done before. And as a formal challenge, taking something that was so random and chaotic in and of itself, to try and translate that into film was a very interesting, and possibly self-defeating, objective."
It was a tricky undertaking?the book, after all, has no formal structure?it's just photographs and brief, mostly unrelated newsclippings. In fact, after Marsh received Michael Lesy's blessing on the project, Lesy's comment was, "Well, go ahead and do what you can with it."
What Marsh did in the end was organize the film around the four seasons.
"I think the audience needs some sense of an organizing principle behind something that, by nature, is random?the random chaos of how events are reported, how these things are gathered together," he explained. "There's a sense of the life-cycle in those seasonal organizations... The book you can come to and go away from, but a film has to work in a particular time frame?all those obvious considerations about how a film should work?it's pretty difficult to just have these four- or five-line stories, one after the other."
And though he wrote a script, he says the film was really constructed in the editing room.
"I tried to respond to the material as we shot it, and create?in the way that the book does?a certain rhythm in the way the stories sort of emerge from each other, and how there are certain connections and certain characters that crop up... But at the same time, it was chaos that I liked in the book, and chaos that I wanted to try and put onscreen."
Marsh?an Englishman with a degree from Oxford?had never been to Wisconsin before he began researching the film. In fact, most everything he knew about Wisconsin came from Lesy's book.
"I went there with [the book] as my perspective," he told me, "a perspective which was, if you like, from the past. Of course I did know about Ed Gein and Jeffrey Dahmer. It's sort of unfair really... I hope the state doesn't get this image of being an absolutely ghastly, awful place. It isn't."
He says he ran into no hostility while filming there, no crazed, gun-toting farmers. In fact, most of his actors were untrained locals. He argues that it's Wisconsin's long history of open, progressive democracy that made something like Wisconsin Death Trip possible in the first place.
"What's distinguished [Wisconsin] is that it's archived its past really well. It does have a sense of its own history, which is slightly unusual in America. California doesn't, for God sakes, but...Wisconsin does. I read all those newspapers in Madison, and went through all those photographs...So in a way, it's a victim of its own openness."
I mentioned that, when looking at the official Black River Falls website (blackriverfalls.com), I found it interesting that they really play up the Wisconsin Death Trip angle, almost celebrating their sordid history.
"I think that's true to some extent," he countered, "but I think it's more been forced upon them, as opposed to a kind of conscious sense of 'Isn't it wonderful, we're celebrated in this notorious and morbid book?' I think some people there are a little sensitive about the character of the town that emerges from that book. But we didn't misrepresent ourselves. People knew what we were up to there."
Part of the acceptance?and part of the danger?might have to do with the inclusion, along with the b/w recreations of various rural savageries, of color scenes from daily life in contemporary Black River Falls: parades, school dances, the local retirement home. When I first saw those scenes, to be honest, I was afraid Marsh, like so many others, might be taking some smug, unnecessary stabs at small-town America. He denies this.
"I really hope that isn't the case, and I'm sorry that's the impression that some people have. I wanted to go there and see what it was like now, and I thought the viewer should go there, too...I didn't really do anything to distort what I was filming. I chose my angles and filmed."
Black River Falls these days, he found, was a typical small American town, where the residents are proud of the fact that they don't have the problems bigger cities do. But, like most small towns, what you see is not necessarily all there is to know.
"What's odd about it," Marsh continued, "is that the Sheriff keeps finding bits of bodies that've been tossed from the freeway. He found an arm, a leg and a couple of heads out there. I guess the theory is that people are driving up the main freeway and just randomly tossing out bits of body parts. Lord knows where they got them from. It's pretty curious. We didn't really push that quite as far as we might have." (Though in one sequence, the local sheriff does mention finding a severed head.)
It was, in fact, these modern scenes that distinguish Marsh's film from Lesy's book. While Lesy's book was a history of a certain time and place, Marsh's film is a meditation on those things that don't change nearly as much as we think they might.
"I felt a need to locate the past in the present," he explained. "Also, I think, by the choice of stories?the book has hundreds of stories?what we ended up doing was choosing stories that seemed to resonate across 100 years."
Some of the stories he chose to include for obvious reasons.
"There's a woman who drowns her three children in a lake. And there was the woman a couple of years ago who drove a car into a lake and drowned her children. Of course the woman a hundred years ago says she's possessed by devils. It's those kinds of connections that I hope people will make as they're watching the film...The issue of kids with guns is another one...It makes it harder to dismiss as a thing that's hermetically sealed in the past."
At the same time, he has a special fondness for Mary Sweeney, the window-smasher, who appears throughout the film. Most everybody who's read the book has a thing for her.
"In the book," Marsh told me, "she's either entertaining or reassuring. She's a sort of welcome presence?an anarchist and a free spirit, even if she's mad as a hatter."
In a strange twist, yet another example of the past reemerging in the present, Marsh admitted that his appreciation of Mary Sweeney very nearly got out of hand.
"I must say that I got to really enjoy smashing [windows] myself when we were shooting. We couldn't really smash enough of them?there was a real temptation to go out and start smashing them for real."
Wisconsin Death Trip is at Film Forum through Dec. 14.